The Secret of Two Pizza Teams

Pizza is not only delicious, it is also the key to faster decision making

How much pizza can you eat? On a normal outing, I eat two slices. If I am feeling hungry, I might go for three. When I was on the wrestling team in high school, I could polish off an entire large pie myself after making weight. I do not recommend that.

Pizza has been on my mind lately, probably because I just came back from Italy. But mostly it is because pizza is a wholly separate food group for me. There are the standard food groups like meat, dairy, grain, and fruits & vegetables, and then there is the pizza group. In fact, pizza is more than a food. It is an entire religion. 

I am always finding new ways to explore my gluttonous desire for this culinary delight. For example, one thing I recently learned is that the best pizza in the US is in New Haven, Connecticut. This is not an uniformed opinion, but a fundamental law of nature like gravity or thermodynamics. I tested this myself recently on a trip to the pizza capital, a sacrifice I made for the sake of food science.

The topic of pizza came up again in the more mundane world of social media. With Jeff Bezos passing the mantle of CEO of Amazon to Andy Jassy, there has been much reflection on his over two decades of leadership wisdom that has guided Amazon from scrappy bookseller to an eCommerce and technology giant.

What people on the outside often remark on is Amazon’s incredible agility and speed of execution. Even as a global company with now over one million employees, Amazon manages to grow, explore new markets, and release ever more product at faster cycles.

That speed that observers talk about comes from the ability to make fast decisions. Jeff Bezos has talked about decision making on multiple occasions:

“Speed matters in business - plus a high-velocity decision-making environment is more fun too.”

Maintaining speed however is one of the toughest challenges in large companies. In his famous 2016 shareholder letter, he shared his thinking on a culture that remains nimble, which he called a Day 1 culture:

“Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight.”

He contrasts this with a Day 2 culture that is bogged down in procedures, processes, and paperwork. Instead of delighting the customer, the process becomes the focus:

“The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.”

This not only happens in big complex companies. Processes bog down startups as well, especially ones that are scaling quickly, but hamstrung by doing things that only worked when the company was at a much smaller scale.

This was exactly the issue Amazon faced before adopting a services oriented architecture, migrating from their ever growing and unwieldy monolith. Engineering was slowed by rising complexity and the intertwined nature of the code. Decoupling the architecture enabled the teams to focus only on the parts of the codebase that they owned. By moving to services, teams had less dependencies, resulting in faster delivery of features out to their customers.

Besides leading to the eventual birth of AWS, decoupling had another side effect. Teams became much smaller. With smaller teams, the communications overhead was reduced. There was less excess management and coordination work. Teams could deliver results faster and outcomes were more immediate, leading to higher team morale and customer satisfaction.

The sizes of these teams tended to be anywhere from 6 to 8 people. These were called two pizza teams, a term that evolved from Bezos, who stated that:

“If a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.”

His insight was that the larger the team, the more communication was required. This slowed teams down and created decision friction as more time was spent gathering consensus. A smaller team can experiment, measure, iterate, and fail faster with less risk. With a more clearly defined scope of work, it increases ownership of outcomes and results in better solutions for customers. The “two pizza team” is the perfect execution engine.

It is important to emphasize that the starting point for two pizza teams is the customer. I have often seen companies adopt this organizational approach without adopting the change that is required to make this concept effective. It is like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, it ultimately has no impact if the ship is sinking. 

What makes the two pizza teams so powerful is the connection with customers to teams that have the power to deliver. Of course not everything can necessarily be solved with one team. At AWS for example, a new feature release is a well-oiled machine that coordinates tasks across multiple teams. This is where single-threaded leadership helps to ensure teams can connect and collaborate effectively to ensure timely execution.

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Two problems are often cited when organizations adopt two pizza teams. When a team becomes successful and scales, there is the evitable reality that more resources will be required. When this happens, it is best to define the new sets of responsibilities and split the teams. Another issue is duplication between teams working on similar problems. This however is more of a feature than a bug since multiple approaches to a problem leads to more experiments and better solutions for different sides of the problem.

This is where startups often have the biggest advantage over enterprises. The startup, by circumstance, has limited resources and people power. However, they can make decisions at a lightning fast pace because they are not waiting on other teams, approval processes, or committees. Startups at their core have a bias for action because for a startup, it is about survival.

Any organization however big or small can adopt a culture that prioritizes decision velocity over process. As Jeff points out, the way a company operates is a choice:

“We can have the scope and capabilities of a large company and the spirit and heart of a small one. But we have to choose it.”

Has your organization tried to adopt the two pizza team model? What are some ways you implement faster decision making on your team and across the company?

Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEVBIZOPS

If you enjoyed my tour of pizza from above, you can find more of that on my Twitter and Instagram accounts along with many more of my tech hot takes and foodie pics: Italy pizza, Pizza violence, New Haven style pizza, Grandma slice, Big regular pizza.

Besides my recent work trip to Italy (sadly delaying my sending this newsletter by the week), the AWS Startups club on Clubhouse has been growing fast. The community is on the cusp of gaining 5,000 members within four months of launching!

Some other awesome developments include:

  • Hosting regular shows in the Americas, EMEA, and APAC.

  • Hosting regular shows on Gaming, Fintech, and Emerging Tech.

  • Our underrepresented founders series brought in our largest audiences.

  • We covered everything from Serverless to Cloud Costs to Quantum Computing.

And this week we are launching our first regular show for African startups and our first show covering the Healthcare / Life Sciences (HCLS) space.

I welcome you to join the conversations and if you think you have an interesting story to share on the show, do reach out to let me know!

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